Today’s Special is a 2009 film directed by David Kaplan. It’s a feel good film about food, and I’m offering this review with a dedication to those folks who regularly ride the 7 Train from Queens, NY into Manhattan. This is the subway that takes you from the Main St. Station in Flushing, Queens, past Citifield, home of the New York Mets, straight through Queens, finally going beneath the East river for a stop under the lower depths of Grand Central Station before ending in Times Square. That line passes through Jackson Heights with two stops that might be called Little India of Queens. And it is in this area that most of the film takes place.
Samir is a sous chef working in a swanky French Restaurant in Manhattan. Basically a sous chef manages the kitchen, controls the supplies and inventory, oversees the staff, sees that the kitchen meets the safety standards and the sanitation codes, and is in charge when the chef is not present. On occasion, the sous chef might even cook.
Well, Samir is passed over for the job of chef at a new restaurant that his current chef is taking over. He quits and decides to set his sails for France, where he hopes to apprentice under a top Parisian chef. His father owns the Tandoor Palace, a small neighborhood Indian restaurant, that is distinctly pedestrian at best. It’s not making any money at all.
Samir must tell his parents of his plans. They’re well-meaning but they can’t see or appreciate Samir’s goals. His Dad is disappointed in him (he’s not a doctor) and his Mom works furiously to find him a wife. His father is crushed by this news. You are quitting a job that pays you good money for a job, that you don’t have yet, that will pay you nothing?
Yes, Dad. I’d be an apprentice.
That leads to a sudden and dangerous shortness of breath for the older man. He’s just suffered a mild coronary. Samir then agrees to hold off on his plans and help out at the restaurant for a while. That’s the set up.
Samir is played by Aasif Manvi. You may not know much about him but he’s appeared in Sasha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator, Margin Call, and The Last Airbender. He’s also appeared in many TV series ranging from ER to The Sopranos to CSI to Law & Order. He’s very good in this film, but the thing that I noticed about him is that he sounds as well as looks like Al Pacino.
In supporting roles are Harish Patel as Samir’s father Hakim, and Madhur Jaffrey as Samir’s mother. She was a well-known actress in India for many years before she switched over to cooking and not only wrote books on cooking Indian food, but also was involved with the Indian Restaurant on East 58th Street, in Manhattan, called Dawat (I’ve dined there).
Also on board is Jess Weixler who plays Carrie, an attractive single Mom, who worked with Samir at the French restaurant, and will become more than just a friend.
But stealing the film is Naseeruddin Shah (above) as the magical and mysterious New York City taxi driver named Akbar who just happens to be a near mystic and a former chef. I’ve seen Shah in about a dozen films (Monsoon Wedding, A Wednesday, Ishqiya, 7 Khoon Maaf, Raajneeti, and Omkara – to name some of them) and he’s always terrific.
This time is no exception. He’s got magic in his hands – he uses no recipes suggesting that Indian cooking is mostly all improvisational. Use your brain, your taste buds, and your gut and make it up as you go. For Akbar it all works.
The story works too – although it is a success by the numbers. Quite predictable, and no new bridges are crossed. Kaplan’s direction is nothing special but is quite competent – but he does manage to get a superb performance from Shah which more than makes up for the lack of originality of the story.
Simply, this is a heartwarming story. It’s small, and is set in a very recognizable neighborhood. It has its charms and I’ll say if you like films about food and the people who cook – then you must include this one in your upcoming food/film menu. Three point five is the rating. The film’s tagline is Life Has no Recipe. What I’m saying is that you don’t have to culinary skills to appreciate this film. All you need is a hearty appetite.